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Astro or nuclear physics

  1. Mar 21, 2014 #1
    Hello! I apologize in advance if this has been asked before, or if it more properly belongs in the career section - I wasn't sure since I'm still at university.

    I'm currently in the middle of my undergrad studies in physics with an astronomy focus. My plan has been to go on to grad school to pursue a PhD in astrophysics but the more I talk to people and read about others' experiences the more I think I should plan for contingencies other than being a successful astrophysicist in academia. I love physics in general, and astronomy in particular but I'm also very interested in the nuclear energy side of things. I'm wondering if there's any way that I could pursue the field of astrophysics and still prepare myself for getting into nuclear physics in some way in case things don't work out with the astro side. Or is this entirely unrealistic?

    Thank you for any advice you can give.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 21, 2014 #2
    You should also plan for contingencies other than being a successful nuclear physicist in academia, I would not automatically assume it is any easier than astrophysics just because it at face value it sounds more tangible (see: the continually receding budgets for nuclear in the US).

    I have seen profiles of some pretty bigshot academics that did their thesis on topics in nuclear physics, but ended up most of their academic career doing astrophysics (Walter Lewin is one), but I think most of them date back to the 70's and 80's when x-ray and gamma ray astronomy was really taking off, so I don't know if that is terribly relevant.

    I would strongly suggest getting research experience in both fields before graduating and/or applying to physics grad schools that have active research groups in both, that way you can cycle through them during your summer RA'ships and get a feel for what they do and have plenty of time to make an informed decision. Schools that have easy access to big national laboratory and/or observatory facilities are also something to consider even if you want to do pen/paper theory, experimental experience is something you need to have no matter what you go into.

    Now if working in nuclear energy is what you're interested in, the choice is clear: graduate education in nuclear engineering.
    Last edited: Mar 21, 2014
  4. Mar 22, 2014 #3
    Thank you for your response, Lavabug. My top choice for grad school seems to have a good variety of research opportunities in both astro and nuclear physics, but I'll keep your suggestion in mind when looking for backups too. Unfortunately my current school's physics department is focused entirely on the computational and astronomy fields, with no real opportunity for getting experience in the nuclear side. Transferring to another school isn't really an option for me at the moment, so I suppose I'll need to look for REU's that would garner some experience in nuclear physics as much as possible in the meantime.
  5. Mar 22, 2014 #4
    I'm not sure if it will help you at all, but definitely try to stress the following in your REU application: you want to go there specifically because you want experience in nuclear and that your current school cannot provide this for you at this stage (always speaking of your alma mater in a positive light, like you would of past employers in a job cover letter).

    I think the DOE has a few internship/coop programs on top of the regular REU's. If you live relatively close to any facility/nat. lab I would even consider asking around for volunteer work, assuming you're a US citizen.
  6. Mar 22, 2014 #5
    I would think nuclear would be more applicable today. Like it or not it's the energy source that's going to save mankind. Just ask yourself just what are you going to do with a phd in astrophysics, and the answer would be nothing but contemplate unemployment. At least with nuclear physics you can go into health physics, work at power plants, do fusion research or maybe even do some radiation protection. Now if you can't find employment in astrophysics just what are you going to do?
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